Letters to Kate: Life after Lifeby Carl H. Klaus
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Sorrow is “not a state but a process” that needs “not a map but a history. . . . There is something new to be chronicled every day,” writes C. S. Lewis in A Grief Observed. When Carl Klaus's wife of thirty-five years died suddenly from a cerebral hemorrhage, right before Thanksgiving in 2002, he took the only road toward recovery that made sense to him: he started writing letters to her, producing a unique history of grief, solace, and love. His vivid and thoughtful letters will resonate with everyone whose loss confronts them with emotional, psychological, and philosophical questions for which there are no easy answers.During his first year without Kate, Carl writes himself into the life that comes after the life he loved. From days of grief in the darkness of a midwestern winter, to springtime, with a return to life in the garden and a memorial service for Kate on a sunny afternoon, to fall, with a pilgrimage to their favorite vacation spot in Hawaii, Carl documents his year-long experience of remembering, meditating, and evolving a new life. Individually his letters provide the insights of a master diarist; collectively, they have the arc of a master essayist. Recording the full range of mourning from intense shock to moments of exceptional affirmation, Klaus's stories and reflections on loss bear witness to universal truths about the first and most significant year of mourning.
“Frequently heartbreaking, always insightful, ultimately transcendent-Carl Klaus's chronicle of his first year of grief reminds us that even after the longest winter, spring does eventually arrive. This book is destined to become a classic in the bereavement field.”-Hope Edelman, author, Motherless Daughters
“Letters to Kate is a moving, beautifully written, carefully crafted memoir of a widower dealing with his wife's sudden death on a quiet November afternoon. It is a comforting experience for writer and reader alike, and an important contribution to the genre of loss narratives.”-Bertram J. Cohler, University of Chicago
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Letters to Kate Life after Life
By Carl H. Klaus
University of Iowa Press Copyright © 2006 Carl H. Klaus
All right reserved.
Chapter One SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 30
This morning-the first time I've been alone all week-I was sitting in your chair in the TV room, thumbing through one of your notepads, and came upon the obituary you'd evidently been drafting for yourself. I remember your saying just a few weeks ago that we had to write our obituaries for the funeral home, but I didn't know you'd been working on one, so I was shocked to find it-as if you had a premonition of things. And surprised to see it was as brief and matter of fact as the one I wrote last Sunday, the day after you died. At least we're still on the same page, though my piece doesn't have the edginess of yours. How could it? Here's a copy of what I wrote, so you can see for yourself:
OBITUARY FOR KATE FRANKS KLAUS
Kate Franks Klaus, 60, of 416 Reno Street, Iowa City, died November 23, 2002, of a stroke at Mercy Hospital.
Kate was born February 26, 1942, in Lisbon, Iowa, to Stuart and Elizabeth Franks. She graduated from Lisbon High School, attended Vassar College, received a B.A. in English from Stanford University, and an M.F.A. in poetry from the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Poet, playwright, translator, designer, environmentalist-she co-founded Reno Street Neighborhood Park, as well as Heritage Trees of Iowa City, and the Nancy Seiberling Heritage Grove in Hickory Hill Park. Memorial donations may be made to Heritage Trees of Iowa City, c/o The Civic Center, Iowa City, Iowa. A memorial service will be held in spring at the Nancy Seiberling Heritage Grove.
She is survived by her husband, Carl Klaus, of Iowa City, by her sister Martha Harrington of Largo, Florida, by her brother, John Franks of Denver, Colorado, and by her stepchildren, Amy Klaus Wuellner of Oregon, Wisconsin, Hannah Klaus Hunter of Davis, California, and Marshall Klaus, of Peru, New York.
On another notepad, I found a poem you'd written called "Obit"-one thing leads to another, I guess. But I could hardly believe how bleak it is, even considering your late-night glooms. What made you think that no one would know "just who I was / Just what I did"? Did you imagine yourself living so long as to outlast anyone who might remember you? Or did you really think that no one would care? Whatever the case, I wonder what you'd say about the host of cards and letters I've received-in just a few days, just from people in town. And the comfort food, e-mail, and flowers. Yes, they're consolatory, grieving for my loss. But it's you, Kate, it's you that they're really about-the notes and letters filled with such vivid memories that almost every one of them leaves me in tears. Enough to make up for all my years of tearlessness. Now I know what your mother was going through after your father suddenly died, why she was tearful for so long. Some legacy-your father's stroke to you, your mother's tears to me.
But already I can hear your unmistakable commands: "Enough of the tears. Enough of the mush. Just tell me what happened, and what's been happening since then. And stick to the facts, like the obituary." Easier said than done, Kate. But here it is-just the facts, or nearly so. From start to finish it was less than four hours. You got back from the art fair at one in the afternoon and were dead at twenty to five. So sudden, so swift that it's still impossible to believe. One minute showing me the bowls you'd just bought, your eyes glittering with delight-"Don't you think they'll go perfectly with our dinner plates?"-a few minutes later staring blankly at the oven, a few minutes later staring blankly at me as the milk you were drinking dribbled down the side of your mouth, and a few minutes later, just before the ambulance arrived, tumbling out of your kitchen chair, already paralyzed on one side, else you'd never have fallen like that. Yet still so much in possession of yourself as to worry about our dinner party that evening for Gene, as if your fate were less important than festivities for our weekend guest. How strange, but also how fitting, that your last words to me were about food-"You'll take care of the rice, won't you? And the lamb too?" Our daily sacrament your final concern. Ten minutes later when I arrived at the hospital, you couldn't speak, couldn't move your eyes, and completely lost consciousness when you were having a CT scan. So much for the paramedic's assurance, "Don't worry, all her vital signs are good." Such a massive hemorrhage, "a ten-centimeter bleed, a herniated brainstem," according to the neurologist, that nothing could be done. But just to be sure, I called Amy, given her emergency nursing experience, and she confirmed the doctor's advice-"Don't try to save her, Dad. It's hopeless. Just make sure she gets enough morphine to prevent any pain." So, the last three hours of your life, you lay calmly on your back in an intensive care room, while Gene sat on one side of you and I hovered around the other, sometimes holding your hand, sometimes kissing your forehead, sometimes talking to you, but mostly in such a state of shock (chills coursing down my body nonstop) that I didn't know what to do except not to leave your side, lest you slip away in my absence-as if you weren't already long gone, a million miles away. And when the end did come, I couldn't tell the difference, except that Sarah, the attending nurse, was in tears as she checked your eyes-your beautiful eyes obscured by God knows what fluid-and unhooked the monitor. Your lips still warm when I kissed you goodbye, your body still relaxed when I tried to climb on the gurney. I wanted to hold you, to lie by your side one last time, but it was too narrow for both of us. And the sidebars made me feel like an intruder. So I settled for a clumsy little hug. Such an absurd parting-thirty-seven years together and nothing at the end but a clumsy little hug.
There's more to report, but this is all I can manage right now. I'll try again tomorrow.
SUNDAY, DECEMBER 1
Gene left the morning after you died, and ever since I've been thinking how strange that he came to spend that ill-fated weekend with us, after not having seen each other for five years, came because of John's impending death, only to witness yours. When John hired Gene and me as instructors some forty years ago, I never imagined that our lives would intersect in so many ways-on fishing trips, at poker games, professional meetings, and now like this. On the way to the airport, he spoke of being "honored" to be with us when you were dying, whereas I felt blessed by the gift of his calm presence. And dazed by the thought of all he'd been through, given his visit to John and his deathwatch with me. I can hardly imagine what it would have been like without him. At the airport, just before leaving, he gave me a piece of advice I hadn't heard before, but that I've been getting ever since-"Don't make any big decisions about anything for at least a year, not until you're more stable than you are right now."
The way I feel right now, stability is light-years away, especially after last week. An emotional stress test, it began with the sight of your elegant table for the dinner party that never took place, the last work of your hands confronting me and Gene when we got back from the hospital and walked into the dining room-the green silk runner down the length of the table, the green glass centerpiece with the chrysanthemums still as fresh as when you arranged them, the green straw placemats, the green napkins atop the brown pottery plates, the wood-handled cutlery, the amber wine glasses, the amber water glasses. I remember you putting it together that morning, still in your nightgown, swanning around the dining room before you went to the fair-remember you showing me the moss green mums and telling me, with a twinkle in your eye, "They're called Kermits." But the shock of your death was so huge, obliterating, that I completely forgot the dinner party, the table, and everything else until Gene and I walked into the house that afternoon. Such a dazzling emblem of your impeccable eye, I was momentarily transfixed by it, then overcome with remorse for having taken such things for granted. Then and there, I vowed to leave the table untouched as long as possible, to keep the flowers alive as long as possible, to celebrate Thanksgiving-some thanksgiving!-on a table set by you. And that's what happened five days later, with a guest list of your dreams. Not only Marybeth, Ken, and Elizabeth, in keeping with our neighborly rotation, but also Amy, Hannah, Marshall, and Martha-the first time that my children and your sister were all here together in at least ten years. The only one missing was you. But you were there-and not just in the setting and your classic menu, nor just in the simple toast "To Kate." You were there in the "Thanksgiving Prayer" that I found among your papers on the kitchen counter.
Lord, we thank you for the harvest Spread before us, And the company of loved ones All around us.
Such a haunting little grace that I barely got through it. But then again, everything the past week has been so haunting that I barely got through it. Like going to the funeral home last Sunday, almost a year to the day after you dragged me there to make arrangements for ourselves. "We've got to do this," you said, "so it's all taken care of when the time comes, and no one has to worry about what to do or what we want." Too bad you didn't tell them how to do your hair-not to rinse out the gray, not to comb out the bangs. But the strange-looking hairdo was nothing compared to the feel of your body under the lovely antique quilt-so stiff and cold when I bent over to hug you that the chills swept over me again, and words came rushing out of my mouth as if some other voice had commandeered my own. "That's not her, that's not her," I screamed, running out of the room. And Carolyn, the funeral attendant, answered me calmly, frankly-"No, it's not her, it's not her at all. That's just her body. She's gone." A truth that suddenly hit me so hard, I burst into tears for the first time since you died, the dam broken at last that had me wondering until then whether I was so numb, so stunned, I'd never shed a single tear.
I've heard about people being in shock or suffering from posttraumatic stress, but I never imagined it could be so weird. Like the sirens ringing in my ears, the chills sweeping down my body again and again the first night in bed without you. And the night after that and the night after that, until Amy gave me a sedative that smoothed out the nights a bit but certainly not the days. Now, in fact, I suddenly find myself breaking down almost any time or place-in the supermarket aisle with Marshall the day before Thanksgiving, in the garden yesterday afternoon pulling the last of our fall radishes, in the kitchen this evening, looking out at the candles that someone's evidently been lighting in memory of you at the neighborhood park, at the end of the new Harry Potter movie when the young heroine, seemingly dead, suddenly came to life again. A fantasy too close to home.
Were it not for our friends and neighbors, I might have been in tears all week, but their visits and gifts made me feel as if I should put up a staunch front, as you would have done, as your mother did after your father's sudden death. What else to do, then, but tell them the story of that fateful afternoon, the story they evidently craved to know, as if knowing what happened could make sense of your shocking death. I told it so many times that my tale hardened into a set piece-"It all began just a few minutes after she got home from the art fair ..." How quickly a formula takes hold-life and death alike embalmed in language. And when I wasn't telling the story, I was showing photographs of you that I propped up around the living room. The big black-and-whites that Rowley took in my bachelor apartment when we were still in our salad days and he needed to do a series of portraits for his photography class. You sitting at the ice cream table in your wide-brimmed hat, holding a large umbrella over your head, your fingers elegantly clutching the handle. You sitting at the table, your eyes cast downward, your hand on its marble surface, your shoulder-length hair covering half your face. What a bizarre yoking-the afternoon of your death and an afternoon thirty-seven years ago when you came to my apartment and modeled for Rowley's art shots. But then again, compared to your death, nothing seems bizarre. Not even these letters.
MONDAY, DECEMBER 2
Your clothes were also part of the story last week, but I didn't say anything yesterday, for I couldn't say it all in just a few words. So here's a rundown of what happened. A few days after you died, I looked in your closet and was swept away by the sight of all your things, suddenly beside the point without you to fill them. Such an absurd spectacle, I asked Amy, Hannah, and Martha to take what they wanted and box up the rest for the Goodwill Store and Salvation Army. How strange it felt to make that request, for I always assumed you'd be dealing with my personal effects. And why not? You're ten years younger than me, so you should have outlived me by at least ten years. And grieved for me, rather than I for you. And wept over my clothes, as I have wept over yours. Such a mess of self-indulgent feelings that I could see myself turning into a wet dishrag, or a closet fetishist, if I didn't get rid of your stuff. And who better to do the sorting than my daughters and your sister. Besides, I thought you'd want me to "spread things around," the way you always did when you went through your clothes each year. But I couldn't bring myself to part with everything just like that. Especially not your handmade outfits-so elegantly designed and tailored that I plan to keep them awhile in the oak wardrobe, before giving them to the Women's Archives. Do you see how torn I was-how torn I am!-about letting go of things? Even your extravagant shoe collection-now all gone except for a pair of black clogs mistakenly left behind-even your shoes, or the mere thought of them, fill me with longing. I wish they were still here, rivaling Imelda's. So perhaps you can see how hard it was just to stick my head in our bedroom when they were going through your drawers and closet. A four-day ordeal that ended with everything empty, except for the inside of the closet door, where your lavender housejacket was hanging. When I mentioned it to Hannah, she said, "We thought you should keep it, Dad," and I understood why the next morning when I got up and it took me by surprise and I hugged it like a rag doll. Now I expect to keep it there as long as I live, and not as a fetish, but as a reminder of what you looked like when you came downstairs for your morning orange juice and coffee. "Complacencies of the peignoir." I've also kept your silk scarves, so friends and neighbors can choose something special for themselves. Your wide-brimmed hats are still atop the pie safe, your Ben Franklins still by the bedside, and all your summer things still in the steamer trunk where you put them just a few weeks ago, ready for our trip to Hawaii.
Everything's where it should be except for Jag, who limped downstairs this morning after a week of hiding out in the attic and the backyard, grieving I'm sure for you. I thought at first that his limp might be another sign of grief until I noticed a bruise over his eye, took him into the vet's, and discovered that he was evidently hit by a car. Grieving indeed! Bill says he'll be fine after several days at the clinic, but it looks like he nearly spent all of his nine lives at once. With Jag out of the house, I thought it would be a good time to bring Puck back home again. He's been at the vet's ever since we took him in the day before you died-so many people coming in and out of the house last week he'd have been even more hyper than usual. But today he's been very calm, especially after I took him for a long walk in the cemetery. I wonder if he knows that you're missing. How could he not, having spent so many nights in your lap?
Excerpted from Letters to Kate by Carl H. Klaus Copyright © 2006 by Carl H. Klaus. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Carl Klaus, founding director of the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program and professor emeritus of English at the University of Iowa, is a diarist, essayist, and author of My Vegetable Love, its companion Weathering Winter (Iowa 1997), and Taking Retirement.
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